Open RA E
THE PIXEL ART OF WAR
ach of us, as gamers, has that moment in our gaming education where we learn the concept of “overpowered” and “unbalanced”, “spamming” and “rushing”. For many, it was StarCraft that taught these concepts. Others learned from teambased shooters, perhaps even an MMO or two.
For gamers who came of gaming-age in the 1990s, it was Westwood’s real-time strategy games. Technically, these began with Dune II in 1992, but that game was very much a primitive forebear of the context-sensitive-cursor games we take for granted today. I mean, in Dune II you had to go to a whole dierent screen to choose which tank to build!
No, the real ur-RTS was Command & Conquer. With its fanciful near-future setting on an Earth infected with an alien crystal called Tiberium, it introduced such timeless concepts as the Mammoth Tank, NOD attack-bikes, and of course sandbags.
Oh those sandbags. Due to a programming oversight, to beat the AI in Command & Conquer, all a player needed to do was build a line of sandbags across the map. Enemy units would arrive at the sandbags and just... stop. They didn’t try to shoot through. They just sat there.
In C&C’s future-of-a-timemanipulated-past sequel, Red Alert, the problem wasn’t dumb AI but basic balance. Soviet players, with a little careful early-game defence, could turtle up, build cash, and then spam out dozens of Mammoth Tanks which would then just roll across the battlefield.
See, this was in the days before variable-diculty AIs, and before the likes of Blizzard and... well, Blizzard almost exclusively, turned “balance” from an afterthought into an art.
Eventually Westwood was bought by EA, and after a few more titles, it was fully absorbed into the EA-gestalt, and the beloved Westwood logo finally faded to black in 2003. Eventually, in 2007 and 2008, EA released C&C and Red Alert as freeware (presumably to boost first C&C 3 and then Red Alert 3). Which is where Open RA comes in.
OLD IS NEW AGAIN
This community project, initially hosted on GitHub and now with its own site at www.openra.net, started not long after C&C first went free. Part of it is about modernising the renderer. See, C&C ran in a mere 640x480 pixels. Red Alert, as a Windows 95 game, could run at 800 x 600. But neither resolution suits a modern desktop.
A completely new renderer runs the games at the player’s native resolution and aspect-ratio, and for owners of 4K displays, a “pixel doubling” mode is also available. The GUI too is overhauled – it brings upgrades from 1998’s Dune 2000 and tabs for switching between structures, defence, infantry, vehicles, aircraft and navy, instead of requiring the player to scroll up and down long columns of icons.
The result is a game that no longer looks dated. Thanks to half a decade of “pixel art” indie releases, Open RA now looks like an artfully retro RTS, rather than a 20 year-old game. It’s crisp, it runs fast and scrolls smoothly, and there are all the multiplayer and skirmish features we now expect – choose a map, choose a spawn-point, set your team to any colour you want, find friend online, join leagues, record your matches etc.
All this is because, instead of three separate applications, Open RA is an engine for “Westwood-style RTS”. Each of the currently supported games – C&C, Red Alert and Dune 2000 – is loaded as a “mod”.
FREE, TO DO WHAT YOU WANT
And it’s all free. From scratch, a new player can download the Open RA client, start it, and then load the various tilesets and other assets required to play their
choice of RTS. Third-party mods are supported too, and there’s an increasing list on ModDB and other repositories.
Even basic music is free. In fact, the only assets that require the original game discs are the famous FMV mission briefings and certain parts of the original soundtrack.
But Open RA goes a lot further than that. The original games were great fun, but they come from an age where game designers were still figuring out what RTS even was. Units existed because they were cool, rather than because they created interesting tactical situations. Maps were pretty basic, and could be capriciously asymmetrical.
Ideas like “expanding to your natural” or area-control had not yet been established. Early units like basic infantry often played no role in the end-game. Spammy or cheesy tactics had no real defence beyond a rock-paper-scissors battle of out-guessing the other guy.
That’s all gone. If you’re a Red Alert fan from way back, and you jump into Open RA and fire up a skirmish, and let musclememory take over... you’ll be crunched by the AI inside five minutes.
In the 1990s, Westwood’s AI would save up a few units for an early rush, and then spend the rest of the match sending units after unit in a line, like lambs to the slaughter. Block choke points with Tesla Coils, pop in a few SAM sites to deter the very infrequent air attacks, and it was all so easy.
Now, the computer combines units in artful ways, and is a dab hand at the stand-o artillery barrage. It expands its base, upgrades its economy, and is generally tough to new players.
Of course, a few dozen hours in and its limitations become apparent, especially the way it struggles to properly flank an opponent (though it does flank, something the original game could never have done). And so it’s time to step up to human opponents via multiplayer. And once again, veterans from 1996 are in for a terrible, terrible shock.
C&C games always used to be a techrush. Get a bunch of airfields up, then strike the enemy’s Construction Yard. With no way to rebuild, it would then become a war of attrition. Or just build dozens of tanks and have a punching match in the centre. Last tank standing wins. Literally: the way C&C demanded you destroy every single unit and structure... most of the match could be spent chasing a single soldier around the map. And woe betide if the final unit was a Stealth Tank... ugh.
In 2017, multiplayer is far more savage. Seasoned opponents feverishly train infantrymen, send engineers to capture oil derricks for an economy boost (a feature borrowed from Red Alert 2), scout with aircraft, assemble APCs in a “star of death” before using Iron Curtain invulnerability to crush an entire infantry army in one go...
As for the third fully-supported game, Dune 2000, this update of the original Arrakis-based RTS has fewer units but makes up for that with the dynamic of sandworms eating anything foolish enough to stand around on the sand for too long.
LIVING THE DREAM
So the game - all three games, really - is faster, more aggressive, harder, and it stimulates the strategy-gland far more eectively than the originals. It is the RTS equivalent of that super-strong pot all the Boomer pot-smokers warn us about.
The Open RA community continues to hack away at the old Westwood games. Next on the list – and already available in a sort of Beta – is Tiberian (sic) Sun. This highly-anticipated sequel to the original C&C looked amazing in 1999 (coloured lighting!) but it had a lot of technical issues, and many elements had to go in “half baked” due to pressure from publisher EA.So the hope is that Open RA will revitalise Tiberian Sun as it has both C&C and Red Alert. And given how this free, lightweight RTS engine has given us hundreds more hours of joy with a series of games that we thought had been consigned to the tomb of Abandonware a decade ago, it’s possible they might just pull it o.
jump in and fire up a skirmish, and let musclememory take over.”
Additional mods change the game entirely. Here’s a Medieval Warfare version
The cult sequel Tiberian Dawn is in Beta right now